Twenty years after the murder of Serbian journalist Slavko Ćuruvija, the trial ends

By Renata Rat – 04.04.2019

It was Easter Sunday April 11th, 1999. The NATO bombs started falling on Serbia a month ago. Slavko Ćuruvija and his partner return home from Easter lunch. In front of their home two masked men approach Ćuruvija and shoot him dead.

Photo (c) Slavko Curuvija Foundation / Predrag Mitic

Fifteen years later, in 2014, the Serbian prosecutor’s office indentified four suspects. All of them had ties to the security services of the former Republic of Yugoslavia under President Slobodan Milošević. Two were arrested, a third was already in prison for another crime and the fourth was on the run.

What’s next, Milošević?

Slavko Ćuruvija was a harsh critic of the Milošević regime. In 1996, he established the first independent daily in Serbia, Dnevni TelegrafIt was one of the only newspapers to cover the Yugoslavian war objectively In 1998, he established the magazine Evropljanin, considered  to be one of the best quality newspapers. Notable Serbian journalists such as Aleksandar Tijanić wrote for the title and European Centre for Press and Media Freedom Executive Member Ljiljana Smajlović was the International Editor of the magazine. 

You can read her testimony here.

The thirteenth edition of the magazine contained an open letter to then-president Slobodan Milošević, signed by Ćuruvija and Tijanić and titled  „What’s next,  Milošević?“. The next day, the Serbian parliament and then-Information Minister Aleksandar Vučić (now the President of Serbia) propsed the Public Information Law which contained drastic restrictions and fines for the media. It was passed by the Parliament. Ćuruvija was ordered to pay draconian fines and the complete assets of his newspapers were seized. Shortly before his death, the state media branded Ćuruvija as “a traitor and as a NATO collaborateur who had asked foreign governments to bomb his own country.“  

Slobodan Milošević introduced a new populist and authoritarian political style to Serbia and reformed several parts of the Serbian constitution. The power of the then-autonomous provinces in Serbia Vojvodina and Kosovo were significantly reduced. Furthermore, his government established harsh restrictions and censorship for the independent Serbian media. 

In 2001, Milošević was extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslaviain The Hague, where he was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity connected to the Yugoslavia war.  He died in his prison cell in 2006. 

Trial ending after almost four years

The Belgrade Higher Court is expected to announce the verdict for the men accused of Ćuruvija’s murder on Friday, 5.April 2019 – twenty years after the killing.

It started in 2013, when the now pro-European Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić established a mission to invesigate the murders of journalists and in 2014, two of the four suspects were arrested.

All are former State Security officials. Serbian prosecutors charged Milan Radonjić and Radomir Marković with planning and organising the murder. In addition, prosecutors charged Ratko Romić with planning, organising and executing the murder; he was already in prison, serving a 40-year sentence for his involvement in another murder. Miroslav Kurak, who is currently on the run and being tried in absentia, is charged with being one of the contract killers. 

The trial started in front of the Special Court for Organised Crime in Belgrade in June 2015. The defendants plead not guilty. The prosecution asked the court to sentence all four defendants to 40 years in prison, which is the harshest possible sentence in Serbia. 

Key evidence for the prosecution comes from an expert analysis of their communications, based on tapes that carried data from the mobile phone base-stations, which show the locations of the defendants’ phones. This report confirms that the accused had intense contact with each other before and on the day of the crime. Both Romić and Kurak were present at the crime scene that day. One of the main witnesses is Dragan Kecman, a policeman who investigated Ćuruvija’s murder from the very beginning.

A trial full of unknowns

“I don’t know”, “I don’t remember” or “I’m not sure”. These were the most commonly used phrases during the trial. In addition to that, many witnesses did not remember the statements they made earlier during the investigation in the previous years.

The trial panel tried to exclude the evidence drawn from the data from the mobile phone base-stations, ruling that the tapes were obtained illegally. But after a ruling by the Appellate Court the tapes were included in court. The main witness Kecman who collected key evidence and after almost 16 years of investigation wrote a criminal complaint against the accused, was not allowed to testify. Eventually, he was reassigned and replaced without clear explanation from his position as head of the Directorate for Fighting Organised Crime.

Both the investigation and the trial have been burdened by pressure on investigators and witnesses. Irrelevant topics took up a lot of time and several times the court has been dismissed for vague reasons like “we have to clear this room“.

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